Imagine that any smartphone you use can be turned into that of any brand you want. It may sound absurd in a world of deadly rivalry between Apple, Samsung and the like. But then imagine that any automatic teller machine can instantly adopt the brand of your bank the moment you slip in your ATM card. Suddenly, that doesn’t sound so absurd.
In fact, the possibility is closer than we may think. It is made possible by a relatively new and complex information technology discipline called virtualisation, which allows for “virtual machines” to be created in data centres, on central computers called servers. A server can house any number of these virtual machines, which are tied to specific user identities. Log in with the appropriate details and your personalised machine appears, with very specific applications and content specific to your role in an organisation.
The concept goes hand in hand with cloud computing, which allows applications, content and processes to be accessed from anywhere, on any device, at any time. These concepts lay behind the creation of WMware, one of the world’s largest providers of cloud computing systems and until recently a subsidiary of storage leaders EMC.
When computer giants Dell announced last year they would buy EMC for a record $67 billion, VMware was described as one of the jewels in the acquisition and remained a separately listed company, with the new Dell Technologies as controlling shareholder. It’s not hard to see why: the company keeps pushing the boundaries of what is possible in both cloud computing and virtualisation.
At its recent VMworld conference in Barcelona, it unveiled new releases of most its solutions that help companies streamline their IT operations. In combination, these solutions make up VMware’s Cross-Cloud Architecture, which enables companies to run, manage, connect, and secure their applications across any device or cloud service – now including market leaders Amazon and Microsoft – as if they are in their own customised environment.
Because virtual machines are dictated by software rather than hardware and consumers and corporations alike are seeing their high-tech worlds defined by that software, it becomes easier to envisage smartphones, ATMs or any other hardware adapted to the purpose or preference of the moment. It makes sense, but it also requires a new mindset.
“We are now the psychologists of information, because we have to transform the way people think about technology,” said Ian Jansen van Rensburg, VMware Southern Africa’s senior manager for systems engineering, speaking at VMworld. Ironically, however, South African techies are harder to convince than their counterparts in the rest of Africa.
“In South Africa, if you tell a storage guy his business is going to be a software business and he’s just invested heavily in storage hardware, he’s probably not going down that route. Yet, everything is becoming software-defined and people need to wrap their heads around this.”
The real irony is that in the rest of Africa, far less has been invested in hardware and the leap to software-defined data centres is far easier from a mindset point of view. Even more ironically, employees who once depended entirely on the IT department for assistance and resources are now bypassing IT administrators so that they can get what they need, when they need it.
For example, marketers who want to share large files online for an urgent project are no longer waiting for the techies sitting in the IT department to approve the budget or set up the appropriate “architecture” for file-sharing. Instead, they log on to the Dropbox online storage service, whip out their personal credit cards and pay for extra capacity.
The cost is then charged to routine project expenses. It may not make a big difference when it is a Dropbox here and a Google app there, but it adds up when such habits graduate to serious business applications.
The combination costs so much, yet is not going through the IT budget, that the company has a distorted picture of what is being spent where. VMware previously called this kind of spending “Shadow IT”, meaning it lurks unseen in the shadows of the IT budget. VMware CEO Pat Gelsinger, inset, in his keynote address at the conference, used a new term, “self-starting IT”, referring to the ability of any tech-savvy staff members to become their own IT providers.
But help is at hand, says Matthew Kibby, VMware regional director for sub-Saharan Africa. “Users were frustrated because the IT department couldn’t deliver an application to them fast enough. Eventually they got fed up and went to Amazon Web Services or Microsoft Azure and quickly got it off the cloud.
VMware’s vision is is to give that control back to IT and say, you are now in control of your IT infrastructure, whether it’s being rolled out on a company laptop or a personal smartphone.”